Ants may not seem particularly germaphobic, since they live in
bacteria-rich dirt and often eat decaying plants and animals. But some
ants have evolved to be quite fastidious sanitizers, regularly bathing
themselves in antimicrobial secretions emitted from glands in their rear
Now, research from scientists based at the University of Sussex in the
United Kingdom suggests some ants also take it upon themselves to
sanitize young, vulnerable members of their colonies by scrubbing their broods and nesting materials with their cleaning fluids.
"We knew that [the secretions] help adults, and we knew that the brood
survives and isn't constantly being affected by fungi," study co-author
Christopher Tranter told LiveScience. "So we predicted that these
secretions would help in keeping the brood healthy as well, and it was
nice to find strong evidence showing that." [Mind Control: Images of Zombie Ants]
Tranter and his colleagues studied the cleaning mechanisms in the Brazilian leaf-cutting ant (Acromyrmex subterraneus subterraneus) and the Southeast Asian weaver ant (Polyrhachis dives)
by sealing off the antimicrobial-producing glands in a subgroup of
their sample using a thin enamel polish. They then placed these adults
with broods for about two weeks. They did the same with nonsealed-off
ants for comparison. The team also placed sealed-off and nonsealed-off
adults among brood-free nesting materials and measured the fungal growth
in the materials after about two weeks.
The team found that broods protected by ants with sealed-off glands
were less likely to survive than broods protected by
antimicrobial-producing ants. In addition, the nesting materials of
sealed-off ants contained more fungal growths than nests of
nonsealed-off ants did, proving these secretions play an important role
in keeping a colony's nursery healthy.
Not all ant species have evolved to produce these secretions, Tranter
said, and some appear to produce them in greater quantities than others.
The team next hopes to conduct analyses to gain a better understanding
of why certain species have the cleaning glands and others don't.
The team reported their findings earlier this month in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.
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